On The Publican And Pharasee
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This Sunday begins the Triodion period of the year, that is, from this Sunday we look to Pascha from afar and begin to prepare for Great Lent. The Gospel reading appointed by the Holy Fathers for this Sunday is the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, a lesson on prayer and how a person should conduct himself in God's temple.
Our Savior has done all things for us. The true Physician has come to renew mankind. God the Word put on flesh for us, so that He the God-Man might refashion the race of Adam through Baptism and the Holy Eucharist. God has done all things for us and it is for us to rejoice in God’s benefactions, but it is also for us to be wise and work out the details of our own salvation. We need to remember that the devil sought to tempt our Savior Himself and that we must vigilantly contend against the temptation towards sin and passions that afflict us in this life.
In today’s parable we see two men that our Savior sets forth as examples, the one a Pharisee, a man who, according to superficial reckoning, fulfilled all of the Law and was seen as one righteous and the other, a Publican, who was considered by the Jewish people of that day as a traitor, because he collaborated with the hated Roman authority and extorted more than was his due. For the Jews of that day a Publican was the very image of injustice and decadence.
These two men entered the Temple, and in a certain sense they both did well. How many today in our society war against even the idea of God the Creator, let alone seek to be reconciled with Him or prepare for the future life? These two men at least entered the Temple to stand before God their Creator. Who, then, was justified?
The Pharisee, who seemed to be adorned with many virtues, began well and said “I thank Thee, O God.” This is precisely how all God pleasing prayer begins. An angel revealed to one of the ascetics of Egypt exactly how we should order our prayer, that is, we should first thank God and then offer repentance for our sins and only after that, offer our petitions and requests unto God.
The Pharisee started out well, but alas, in reality he did not thank God for His gifts, but rather he pridefully asserted that he "was not as other men" and then verbally condemned and judged his neighbor, the Publican. This was not authentic thanksgiving to God, but rather spiritual delusion. Instead of standing before God and practicing self-examination, he mentally compared himself with others and said something equivalent to ‘I do all things well and am better than all sinful men.’
One must be on one's guard in Church, for the devil hates our prayer and he sows evil thoughts and seeks to provoke us to think evil of our neighbor and condemn him and gossip about him. Our thoughts come from our own mental activity, from God, and sometimes the thoughts passing through our mind are sown by the devil. A good thought is a gift from God. In our spiritual struggle to guard our thoughts we must "turn away from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it," lest we be condemned with the Pharisee.
The Holy Fathers teach that there are three basic spiritual warfares that the devil employs when we strive to practice the virtues. First, he tries to prevent us from practicing the virtues at all. If that fails, he tries to make sure that, whatever we accomplish, it is not according to God's will. If he fails in that and we accomplish a virtue according to God, Satan tries to flatter us with vainglorious thoughts.
The Pharisee listed his supposed virtues not understanding that the virtues are a means to an end, therapies given to us by God to free us from the law of sin, and they not something to boast of. Through the virtues we draw nigh unto Christ and through pride we are cast away from Him. Through his false reasoning the Pharisee took the spiritual weapons of the virtues and proceeded to wound himself and estrange himself from God through pride. Once again, the external virtues are simply a means to an end and the end is a humble heart that has been purified, as the Holy Spirit spoke by the Prophet Esaias, “…to whom will I have respect, but to the humble and meek, and the man that trembles at my words?” (Esaias 66:2) As it says in Scripture “a heart that is broken and humble God will not despise.” (Psalm 50) That is, the sacrifice that is well pleasing to God is a humble heart.
And thus we see the Publican, a man who had no virtue whatsoever, but he trembled before God and he did not even lift up his eyes and said “O God be gracious to me a sinner.”
The Holy Fathers teach that, no matter how much progress a person makes in prayer, and I am speaking about men who attained to extraordinary degrees of prayer, where they would pray for days and nights, in a life of asceticism, one should always pray the prayer of the Publican, “O God, be gracious to me a sinner.” The saints always saw themselves as unworthy and unclean before God. If the saints perceived within themselves even the beginning of the proud thoughts of the Pharisee, they would humble themselves all the more because “a proud heart is unclean before God.” (Proverbs 16:5)
This Pharisee was intoxicated with unclean pride and forgot anything he formerly knew about spiritual wrestling or spiritual purity. Even though he had made progress in the external virtues and held an exalted position and the esteem of Jewish society, it was as if he forgot the elementary lessons of the spiritual life, that is, humble repentance through self-examination. The first step in approaching God is humbly taking ownership of our failings. Anything less is self-deception. Our Savior Himself taught by this parable that even if a man is burdened by many sins, He will not reject him if that man approaches Him in a proper manner. Unflinching self-examination and taking ownership of our sins is the only path to cleansing grace and healing.
If we flatter ourselves or allow others to flatter us, we choose eternal separation from God. If we confront our sins and humble ourselves before our Merciful Savior, He will raise us up and save us. Even if one sins greatly one must exercise what the Holy Fathers call “praise worthy audacity” and not fail to turn to God. Praise worthy audacity is in reality an unfailing hope in God’s mercy that is drained of all self-justification and pride.
The words of the Pharisee, “I am not as other men” are terrible words that have been shown to be the beginning of ruin for many men. Many have found some form success in their careers, either in government, business, or even the Church and the ascetic life and then pridefully began to think “I am not like other men” and this false reasoning lead to every form of presumption which begat erratic behavior and ruin.
The first created man was named Adam, which means earth. We are all made of earth and most assuredly no one can say, “I am not as other men.” We all war against the law of sin (Rom 7:23) and no man overcomes, except by the grace of the God-Man Christ. Many who have exalted themselves have fallen. As soon as thoughts of pride enter into our hearts we should immediately assume the prayerful attitude of the Publican because, most assuredly, at that moment our hearts are unclean.
Yet even after pride that resulted in a fall, many, through humility found reconciliation to God. Read Church history and see that there were some that fell into the humiliation of various sins because of pride and yet, they truly repented and became saints. Yet, alas, Church history also contains many other stories of men who continued in their delusion of pride and refusal to repent and inherited eternal separation from God. For this reason it is an act of love to admonish one who exalts himself overmuch and it is an act of hatred to simply flatter such a one out of weakness.
God does not desire with desire the death of a sinner. Our God is the God of them that repent. He forgave the Publican, the Prodigal, the harlot and the thief on the Cross. Our God forgave Saul the blaspheming persecutor and made him into Paul the Apostle of the nations. He forgave Peter who thrice denied Him. No man should ever despair.Let us make a good beginning in our efforts to return unto God through repentance during the Great Lent and stand before God daily with a humble and contrite heart, that so doing we may be cleansed and justified and united to the God-Man Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.